February 11th, 2006

krazy koati

I want you always beside me

I'll get to talking about the camera when I'm ready. A bit of pop culture has got me distracted today. Specifically, ABC and ESPN's corporate overlords at Disney have released sports commentator Al Michaels from his contract so he could be hired by NBC Universal, which in exchange gave Disney greater usage of Olympics highlights, some days covering golf's Ryder Cup, and complete ownership of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was a silent-era cartoon star created by Walt Disney, back in the dot-com era of animation, when cartoon studios consisted of maybe six guys with a contract to produce 50 eight-minute shorts a year for a reward of nearly ten bright shiny quarters per cartoon, but expectations of becoming rich and famous through this somehow, resulting in cartoons shakily organized around a vague theme, no hint of a plot, and random and occasionally disturbing jokes you get when people don't have time to think out what they're doing. (You see some of this in 1970s Hanna-Barbera cartoons, which got weird as there wasn't time to make sense.) After Disney was fired he lopped off Oswald's ears and drew in a tail and created Mickey Mouse; Oswald meanwhile got made in a bunch of cartoons, up to 1938, that I've never heard of anyone caring about. (A comic book staggered on to 1962.)

Now, I love old-time cartoons, particularly black and white and silent ones. But it's a perverse kind of love because I know most of them are honestly shoddy creations, delightful because they capture the spirit of young and desperately underpaid and overworked people doing something they love, which is delightful in itself. I do love the playfulness with which lines and shapes rearranged themselves, which cartoons lost around the time they got sound, certainly when they got color, with only a few vibrant exceptions.

But the whole transaction must be counted as a weird act of sentiment from the Disney corporation, a company which last showed a sentiment around about 1967. The commercial value of Oswald has to nearly rival that of Fontaine Fox's Toonerville Trolley. Yeah, the cartoons have Disney and Ub Iwerks and Friz Freleng and such before they became Greats, and they'll sell DVDs to collectors and stuffed toys to people who thought they were buying off-model Mickey Mouse dolls but ... really, it seems the person who comes out of this best is Al Michaels, who's now guaranteed to become a trivia answer (``Which TV sports personality was traded to another company in exchange for a rabbit?''), something so many of us hope for in life but never achieve.

Trivia: Walt Disney lost the Oswald series when producer Charles Mintz not only refused to increase Disney's $2,250 production fee per cartoon, but demanded Disney cut it to $1,800. When Disney refused Mintz took the character and most of Disney's animation staff. Source: Of Mice and Magic, Leonard Maltin.

Currently Reading: The Other Foot, Damon Knight.